Caring for Your Septic System – Things to Avoid Putting Into Your System
When you have a septic system in your home, you need to be very careful about what household products you use. Septic systems rely on bacteria to break down wastes and solids, but these bacteria need a specific environment to survive. For example, if you put the wrong kind of detergent in your washing machine or you use the wrong drain cleaner, you can end up killing the bacteria, rendering your septic system ineffective. This can lead to overflows, clogs, flooded drain fields and even groundwater contamination. It’s important to protect your septic system by avoiding harmful household products.
Here are the Top 6 items that you should NEVER put into your septic system.
1. Some Toilet Paper, “Flushable Wipes” and other Clogging Hazards
Other than a septic safe toilet paper, nothing other than human waste should be flushed into your septic tank.
It is important to use a toilet paper that is biodegradable and will dissolve quickly. Most papers designed for use in RV’s and boats will fit the bill and they may be fine for that, but for everyday use may not be ideal. Softness, strength, and tearing ease are qualities that may also be important for you to consider. In March of 2014 Consumer Reports did testing on 21 brands for these qualities and two septic safe brands stood out: White Cloud 3 Ply Ultra and Charmin Ultra Strong, though the Charmin did not dissolve as quickly.
Although sold as being “flushable”, flushable wipes are anything but; they can take over 10 minutes to break apart and are a high clog risk.
Other things not to flush include:
- Disposable diapers
- Sanitary napkins or tampons
- Paper towels or bandages
- Dental floss
- Cigarette butts
- Coffee grounds
- Kitty litter
What do all of these have in common? The bacteria in septic tanks cannot digest these items, leaving them to build up in your septic tank. Over time, your tank will get full and need to be pumped out, costing you hundreds of dollars for each pumpout.
2. Some Laundry Products
A large part of the volume in your septic system may come from your laundry. Most of the laundry detergents that you find at your local grocery store probably contain some environmental contaminant. Thankfully nutrient polluters such as phosphates and nitrates are finally being eliminated from the detergents we use as they promote the growth of choking algae and weeds in our ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers.
Say NO to:
Surfactants – these are foaming agents and are in all soaps and detergents. They reduce the surface tension of fluids allowing them fluid to flow more easily between solids, freeing dirt from surfaces. They unfortunately affect cell membranes and microorganisms and will damage the bacteria colony in your septic system. Luckily, they degrade quickly and don’t pose a severe threat to ground water.
Chlorine bleach – bleach is highly toxic and should be avoided or used in limited amounts when needed, unfortunately chlorine bleach is used in many cleaners and disinfectants.
Say YES to:
Oxygen based bleaches – for laundering
White vinegar – for disinfecting
Baking soda – brightens colors and whites, softens fabrics, eliminates odors
Seek out concentrated laundry detergents with labels that say:
- Low Suds
- No Phosphorous
- No Nitrogen
- Chlorine Free
3. Antibacterial Soaps and Automatic Toilet Cleaners
Antibacterial hand soaps and any product claiming to be antibacterial should be avoided, not only because of the obvious harm they could do to the bacterial colony your septic system needs to function, but they are now being linked to the development of “superbugs” that are antibiotic resistant and pose a health risk to us all. Good old soap and water works fine.
Not only do the antibacterial chemicals in automatic toilet cleaners kill the bacteria in your toilet, they also kill the bacteria in your septic tank. If you use these toilet cleaners, you may find yourself ending up with a septic tank full of blue water and a lot of dead bacteria. Cleaning the toilet instead with a combination of baking soda and white vinegar will give you equally effective frothy results that are nontoxic.
4. Some Dishwasher Detergents
Dishwasher detergent is more likely to contain phosphates and surfactants than laundry detergents. Unlike in laundry machines, there is no agitation in dishwashers. Dishwashers work by spraying water containing detergents with chemicals that will dissolve and break down the food residue stuck to the dishes. If these chemicals somehow make it through your septic tank without killing the bacteria, they can eventually enter the soil around your tank, leaching into ground water and putting you at risk for contaminated drinking water.
Look for Phosphate Free dishwasher detergents.
5. Drain Cleaners
Drain cleaners are a no-no for all homeowners, even ones who don’t have septic systems. Not only can chemical drain cleaners kill the good bacteria in your septic tank, they can also eat away at your pipes! The caustic soda or lye used in them is a powerful oxidizer and can cause severe burns. If your drains are clogged, you’d be much better off paying a little more to hire a plumber to unclog them than using a chemical drain cleaner. If trouble arises, you’ll end up paying a lot more for the damage than you would have if you had hired a professional. Or try this homemade solution to clear your drain and pipes without harm.
DIY Drain Cleaner:
Pour 1/2 cup baking soda, followed by 1/2 cup white vinegar, down drain, and cover with a plug or rag. The mixture will work to break down any fats into salt and harmless gas. Flush with boiling water.
6. Oils and Solvents
Putting a bit of baby oil in your bathtub may leave your skin feeling ultra-soft when you get out, but it’s not such a great option for your septic tank. Once it washes into your septic tank the oil forms a layer of scum that coats the floating waste. The bacteria are then unable to penetrate the oil, preventing it from breaking down the waste. The oil flows throughout your system coating everything, reaching the soil in the drain field clogging it.
Never flush paints, solvents, pesticides, oils, or anything inorganic as they will kill the bacteria or clog the lines.